Granite State High School graduated 15 prisoner-students on October 23. One of the Commencement speakers was Pornchai Moontri, and it was worthy of C-SPAN.
After reading one of my earlier posts about prison – it may have been “Fifty-Seven Times Around the Sun” – a reader in British Columbia wrote in a letter that she wanted to visualize the space we live in. So she tape measured an 8-by-12 foot section of her kitchen floor. Then she imagined in that small space a set of bunks, two concrete stumps, a concrete counter along one wall that serves as both kitchen and study, and a sink and toilet welded together in a corner.
The Canadian reader wrote that she wonders how there is any space left for two prisoners to live. “How can two grown men manage day after day, year after year in such a space?” she asked. “I’ll never complain about my kitchen again!”
Imagine seeing an apartment in the rentals column that includes a living room, bedroom, kitchen and bath in 96 square feet. My friend, Ralph, just found an old plastic chair that he put just outside our cell door. Now the flat comes with a parking space too!
Like most prisons across the United States, this one is overcrowded – which means that the common areas outside these cells that were once for recreation, study, and writing now have overflow bunks with prisoners living out in the open with no available prison cells. So the 96 square feet within concrete walls shared by two prisoners is the sole space we have. The world of prison is a world in miniature. We must adapt to that space and cope with it for years and sometimes decades on end. The psychological toll of prison is that over time it limits within most prisoners any awareness of the world and its affairs beyond these 96 square feet. Prisoners roll their eyes when they ask what I’m writing and I mention something like “The Higgs Boson God Particle” or other news from beyond. I spend a lot of time convincing prisoners that to limit themselves and their world view to these stone walls is a disaster for their psyches and their souls.
It’s especially a disaster for men like Pornchai Moontri and Alberto Ramos about whom I recently wrote in “Why You Must Never Give Up Hope for Another Human Being.” Pornchai and Alberto have faced limits beyond just the barriers imposed by living day after day, year after year confined within 96 square feet. They face the limits of a world view shaped by having literally grown up in prison. The tragedy of prison is that most of these men who have known nothing else for decades will one day return to society, but with what tools?
Now that elections are finally over, maybe some rational dialogue about America’s burgeoning and grossly expensive prisons can begin. There is an ongoing tragedy in America that I have written about in two posts about prison that I wish you would send to any and every politician you know of – especially the ones you just elected.
The first of these posts is “In the Absence of Fathers: A Story of Elephants and Men” about the blatantly obvious connection between the diminishment of fatherhood in our culture and the alarming increase in the number of young men in prison. The second is “Unchained Melody: Tunes from an 8-Track in an iPod World.”
These two posts tell a story about the threat to this nation’s soul that I have encountered in prison, and it’s a story that must spread beyond These Stone Walls. The story was no exaggeration. The United States at this moment has more young men under age 30 in prison than the 35 largest European countries combined.
PORNCHAI’S NEW STORY
But in spite of all the limits imposed by prison walls and warehouse punishment, some men in prison make choices and accept influences that lend themselves to climbing out of this system and staying out. Two of these men were the subjects of my recent post, “Why You Must Never Give Up Hope for Another Human Being.” Alberto Ramos and Pornchai Moontri went to prison at about the same time. Alberto was 14 years old and Pornchai was 18. Both faced the equivalent of life sentences. Both entered prison with no hope for a future, and only a dismal past.
No thinking person can examine these two lives and conclude that they were guilty, above all else, of squandering the opportunities life in America gave them. There were no such opportunities to squander. All had been taken from them. Family, home, childhood, safety – the entire infrastructure of a life that most Americans take for granted – was stolen from each of them by someone else long before their crimes were committed and their lives in prison commenced.
When they were sentenced – and this was especially so for Pornchai – no one in this system held out any hope for redemption. In an article entitled, “Pornchai Moontri at the Narrow Gate,” writer Ryan MacDonald quoted something profoundly ironic from the judge who sentenced Pornchai to 45 years in prison at age 18. As she imposed the sentence, she said that in America Pornchai “had many opportunities to turn [his] life around.” This judge had a public duty to know of the life of the young man she was sending to prison. She would not have dared to utter such a statement had she known, but she knew nothing of that life. She knew nothing of what had been stolen from Pornchai Moontri.
Pornchai and Alberto both surrendered themselves to prison in their first years there, and both gave up on themselves. They were hostile and hurt and responded accordingly. If you’ve read “The Duty of a Knight: To Dream the Impossible Dream,” then you know of the torment Pornchai once endured in the years he spent with no hope in solitary confinement. Today, Pornchai is a model for other prisoners because he has accomplished something that the judge who sentenced him did not see coming. He responded to grace, and it transformed him from the inside out.
THE DESCENT OF ADDICTION
I mentioned my friend, Ralph, above, and the parking space he created outside this cell door. Ralph first went to juvenile detention at the age 12. Between 12 and 17 he had served three lengthy stints in juvenile detention. Ralph then went to prison at age 20. He served three years and was released only to return to prison for the same offenses – drug addiction and its gruesome consequences – at age 25. He served three more years, and was released again. A few months ago, Ralph returned to prison for the third time for the same charge at age 29. He landed in one of the overflow bunks just outside our cell door where he has created his parking space.
This morning as I was typing this, Ralph told me that he spent his entire previous sentence in the hole where he had to be tasered by guards nearly 30 times. He acted like a caged animal and was treated like a caged animal, though it’s unclear which came first. Ralph is a heroin addict detoxing in prison without treatment for the third time. His family – a bridge burned long ago – does not know where he is and he does not know their address.
Ralph spent most of his teens and all of his 20s shipwrecked and stranded by addiction. The high unemployment rate of this current economy works against someone like Ralph. He competes with college grads for meaningful jobs, but as a young ex-convict and high school dropout without family or contacts, Ralph has nothing to compete with. Each time he has gained freedom, he has ended up homeless, back on the streets, and back into the inevitable wasteland of drug addiction.
Is Ralph lost forever at the age of 29? Many who know him think so, but I cannot. He has an uphill climb in life, but this time, with some coaxing, Ralph is trying something new. He enrolled in school and is working to complete his GED. He goes to school every morning, and with encouragement, he is sticking with it. In fact, Ralph’s behavior is so different from everyone’s expectations of him that even prison guards have noticed and have commended him.
Last week, a bunk in a cell came open. No sane person living out in the open in a crowded dayroom would choose to stay there if a cell becomes available. Ralph turned it down, however, and opted to stay where he is. It’s because in Pornchai, Ralph is witnessing first hand a message about imprisonment and freedom that he desperately needs to learn. Ralph’s very life depends on it, and Pornchai is the most qualified man I know to teach it. Pornchai once lived in the deep hole where Ralph spent the last decade. Pornchai tenaciously climbed out of that hole, and undertook the long walk to freedom, and Ralph knows it.
The fifteen prisoner-students who have earned their high school diplomas here this year range in age from 25 to 50. Among them, Pornchai’s grades are outstanding, placing him at the top of his class. Grades are not handed out here lightly. The whole point of high school behind prison walls is that there is nothing free. Students must earn their grades with far greater challenges than in any other school setting. In two or three classes per term over the last five years, Pornchai has earned 26 A’s, 5 B+’s, and 13 B’s. It’s an outstanding achievement for a man born into another language and culture.
Pornchai was therefore asked to deliver a Commencement speech at his graduation. “I’m nervous about it!” he said for the fifteenth time on the day before graduation. It got worse when he was told his speech would be delivered in front of the Chief Justice of the New Hampshire Court System, the Department of Corrections Commissioner, the Warden, many prison staff, his classmates, many of their families, and even a reporter or two.
I was honored to be invited to the Graduation on October 23. Pornchai told me at least five more times that day that he was nervous, conscious of his Thai accent, and worried that he might stumble, but I don’t have to tell you that his speech was the high point of that day. I asked Pornchai to let me publish it on These Stone Walls, so I’m giving him this week’s last word:
PORNCHAI MOONTRI’S COMMENCEMENT ADDRESS
“My name is Pornchai Moontri. I went to prison at the age of 18. That was 21 years ago, so I have been in prison for over half of my life. For a lot of that time at the beginning – for way too long, actually – I believed that I had only a past and no future.
With the gift of education, the staff and teachers of Granite State High School opened a door forward that I did not even know was there. I have heard it said that when we leave this world, we should leave it in a better place than it was when we entered it. That is a real challenge for those of us in prison, but these good teachers have been an example for me on how to go about the business of improving this world. It is an example that I cannot forget, and I thank them.
The gift of education has shown me how to not be just a prisoner. It has shown me that the door that kept me trapped opens out, and not in. I have learned to push forward in this life and not just pull back. I have learned that this is the way to freedom.
There is only one promise that I can make and keep today as I graduate, and it is this: The gift of education you have given to me is NOT lost on me, and it will not be squandered. You have given me some tools I did not have before, and now I must build something. I promise that I will.
Thank you for this opportunity to allow me to better myself.”
(Editor’s Note: Some photographs and a video of Pornchai’s graduation may be available at some future date. They were not accessible at this writing, but in coming weeks we will find a place to display them on These Stone Walls.)